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Symbols & Symbolism - Understanding Indigenous Art

Posted by Jilan Shah on
Symbols & Symbolism - Understanding Indigenous Art

Indigenous cultures have always been storytellers, passing down stories from generation to generation for over 60,000 years. These stories tend to be based on how things came to be, cultural norms, and life lessons. It is an important factor in the cultures, but these stories aren’t just told through verbal means, with paintings and drawings often involved in telling these stories to younger generations, and for others to discover thousands of years later.  

When it comes to Indigenous artwork, paintings often portray oral stories told by the elders. Interestingly while every region will have their own stories, there are traditional symbols and meanings that stay constant across the various regions.  

What is truly astonishing about the stories from the Indigenous cultures is how accurate these stories are as they are retold. Generation after generation, the facts stay fundamentally the same.  

It is worth noting that traditional Indigenous art requires the artists to have authority, knowledge, association and recognition of the stories. Traditional law permits artists to only paint the stories and subjects they are entitled to. 

At Creative Native, an Indigenous Art Gallery in Perth, we have artworks from many different cultural regions, which will give you a great insight into the stories, and how symbols are used, from the various regions.  


Why Symbols are Important in Indigenous Art  

Unlike many cultures, Indigenous Australians don’t have their own written language, so symbols and icons became a way of telling stories, teaching ways to survive, giving directions and using the land.  

What is really important to remember, is that the same symbols don’t always have the same meaning, and symbols in art rely on the context of the story being told. While each artist may use the same symbol differently, interpretations of the symbols are made taking the entire work of art into account as well as the story it is telling, the region the artist is from, and the style of the artwork.  

Indigenous art also has many layers - an outsider will be able to understand some aspects of the art (with basic knowledge of the symbols used and the story behind the painting), while the elders, who have more knowledge of the stories, will be able to understand the artwork in greater detail.  


How Indigenous Art Varies Between Regions 

Australian Indigenous art varies from region to region, getting its content from the region of the artist. The stories are connected to family lineages and are often produced communally, with many artists working on the same piece to tell the story.  

The Central Desert region is known for its contemporary Australian Aboriginal art. Today, the artworks are created using acrylic paint in natural ochre colours, and utilise the dot painting style that many of us know. The art from the Central Desert region is very landscape orientated, while the dots used in the artworks represent the Dreamtime stories.  

Communities within the Central Desert region include Warlukurlangu (Yuendumu), Minyma Kutjara and Keringke 

The art of the Tiwi Islands of Melville and Bathurst Island, is quite unique from most Australian Aboriginal artworks, despite only being 100km off the mainland. The art found in the Tiwi Islands communities is influenced by the island landscape, hunting lifestyle and ceremonial stories. They often use stripes, colours and abstract figures, both in painted artworks and on body paint, to tell their stories. Interestingly, the body paint used during funerals is believed to conceal the identity of the dancers from the deceased person looking for a travelling companion. 

Communities based on the Tiwi Islands include Wurankuwu, Paru, Pickataramoor and Taracumbi. 

Artists of the Kimberley region traditionally use ochre-based colours with minimalist designs that have dated back thousands of years. The region is well known for rock art, and while artists today utilise canvas, the stories are similar - current and past societies in the region, implicit laws and the importance of preserving the land.  

The Wandjinas are only found in the Kimberley region and hold a spiritual place with the people of the Kimberley. Painted with large eyes but no mouth (because that would make them too powerful), the Wandjinas are often painted with various headdresses which depict different types of storms.  

In Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, x-ray art is the traditional style, where animals particularly, are painted showing anatomical features - just like you’d see in an x-ray. This style of art really shows a connection between the artist and the land, and the depiction of bones and organs provides a three-dimensional approach.  


Colours as Symbols  

Looking at Indigenous artwork, you will notice a repetition of similar colours - reds, whites, yellows and blacks are most often used in older or more traditional pieces. These colours symbolise a number of things: 

  • Red - signifies blood 
  • White - signifies water 
  • Yellow - signifies sand or sunlight 
  • Black - dot signify stars, ancestral desert track or body parts, while lines signify waterfalls, rivers and landscapes.  

If you take the time to consider these colours, they are pigments traditionally found in nature. White is commonly made from Kaolin, a soft white clay, or huntite,  black is commonly made from charcoal, while red and yellow were commonly made from ochre (a material used to create other varying shades of other colours as well).  

Today, Indigenous artists utilise acrylic paints, taking advantage of the wide use of colours available.  


 Common Symbols 

There are quite common symbols used throughout Indigenous artwork, which can help anyone understand the story at a base level. Some of the common symbols you’ll see repeated over many pieces include: 

  • Concentric circles represent a meeting place, watering hole or specific site 
  • The Crescent or U shape represents people. There is then a variation of a woman with a coolamon and stick and a male with a spear and shield 
  • Concentric circles with the U shape represents people seated at a specific site  
  • Long elongated lines represent sand hills  
  • The arrow and the broken arrow (for want of a better description) are signs many of us know as emu and kangaroo footprints 


The Dreamtime in Art 

The Dreamtime is a big component in many Indigenous artworks, and for many non-Indigenous people, it is this artwork that they are familiar with.  

Julie Wungundin’s “Wandjina Watching Baby Dreamtime Spirits” is a great example of Kimberley artwork, with the artist painting stories that were passed onto her by her father. Many in the Kimberley region believe that the Wandjina’s made the Dreamtime stories, and that they also created the Ungad spirit - that is a totem you are given before birth by a relative through dreams.  

Ms Wungundin’s work, “Three Ungud Dreamtime Snakes Fighting Over Sacred Waterholes and Eggs” is an example of symbols within Indigenous artwork, with the concentric circles representing a campsite or watering hole. This is a really easy-to-understand artwork, even with a very basic understanding of symbolism in Indigenous art.  

“Milky Way Dreaming” by artist Michael Maloney Jagamara depicts the Milky Way, which features in Dreamtime stories. It is believed that the Milky Way, stars and planets were once men, women and animals. This particular story is a significant creation story, where in one story, the Yiwarra ancestors broke the Milky Way into individual stars that we can see today. Some fragments fell to earth, creating sacred places. 

In other stories about the Milky Way, the stars depict campfires of the ancestors who travelled the land and performed ceremonies at night. 



People, Places & Animals 

Beverley Egan’s “4 Women Digging for Bush Potato” depicts women coming together, using that U shape, with their tools at their side. The lines coming from the centre represent the roots of the bush plant. This in turn represents the links two people have with their family members.  

Betty Egan’s “A Sacred Place” is a great representation of a location being depicted through artwork. This particular piece is a location on the Murchison River, where people drive past thinking there is no water but in fact, there is a spring nearby. We can see the depiction of the road, trees, and a hidden spring.  

More traditional Indigenous artworks will always hold a place in the history of the stories of the Indigenous people however contemporary artists are now producing pieces that explore subjects and happenings closer to more modern times. Political commentary on Indigenous issues, reconciliation, righting historical wrongs, environmental concerns, conservation protection, education and equality are all starting to be represented through Indigenous art. Much like the stories of the Dreamtime and other stories passed from generation to generation through the spoken word as well as art, these new stories will be told in the same manner.  


Learning More about Symbols Used in Indigenous Art  

There is a wide range of resources available to teach you the symbols and meanings of symbols used in Australian Indigenous Art. The Aboriginal Art Workshops at the Creative Native art gallery in Perth offer participants the chance to learn symbols used in Aboriginal art and their meanings, styles that are unique to each region, discussing techniques, and learning about bush foods and medicines.  


We welcome visitors to our gallery every day, and we would love the opportunity to introduce you to some fantastic Indigenous artists in Perth.  

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